Leader Blues

Friday, December 26, 2008

SPORTS>> Dual threat

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Back in Week 4 of the 2008 high school football season, Demetrius Harris turned in a performance that put him on the map.
The 6-foot, 5-inch Jacksonville senior caught everything quarterback Logan Perry threw his way and Perry threw a lot of passes in his direction. When the damage was tallied, Harris had hauled in six passes for 180 yards and four touchdowns.

Harris also caught the attention of opposing defensive coordinators and the rest of the season he was hounded by two, sometimes three defenders.

Harris’ performance this season — 44 catches totaling 743 yards and 9 TDs — caught our attention, too. So much so that we failed to notice something else: As good a receiver as he was, Harris was an even better defensive player. The Red Devil free safety put up numbers that somehow managed to eclipse his sterling offensive output, recording 145 tackles — 109 solo — four interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

So, after including Harris in our final round of Offensive Player of the Year candidates, the Leader sports staff happened to glance at those magnificent defensive numbers. We were as surprised as Jacksonville head coach Mark Whatley and his staff were when they watched game film each week.

“We’d come in and look at the film and we were starting to put a highlight film together from an offensive standpoint for Demetrius,” Whatley said. “And then, when you start crunching his defensive numbers you say, dang, that’s what’s going to get him signed right there.”

Whether it gets Harris a scholarship or not is yet to be determined — Arkansas, UCA, Arkansas State and Arkansas Tech are all showing interest. What it did get him was the Leader’s Defensive Player of the Year honor.

Harris grew up in North Little Rock and attended Horace Mann and Little Rock Parkview until he transferred to Jacksonville his junior season. Whatley is certainly glad he did.

“He’s a free safety with a linebacker mentality,” Whatley said. “He made some tremendous hits right there within three yards of the line of scrimmage and did it over and over and over again. He was a huge impact player for us.”

Whatley knew he had a good one when Harris arrived at Jacksonville. The only question markwas his maturity level. Whatley said Harris made a complete turnaround from his junior season, calling him an unselfish player who was easy to coach. That unselfishness took a couple of important forms. For one thing, Harris was willing to give himself up for his fellow receivers after Jacksonville’s foes turned most of their attention on him.

“Even when you’re not getting the ball thrown to you, you have to blow those routes out,” Whatley said. “So even though he wasn’t catching passes, he was creating catches for his teammates. He understood this and sold out to it.”

Harris said it was frustrating at times, being the object of so much defensive attention. But he understood his role.

“I just worked harder to get open,” he said. “I was like a decoy out there. And other players were getting involved. (The defense) would have one on top of me and another one on me, and the other guys were wide open.”

Harris was also willing to stay on the field for nearly the entire 48 minutes each game, something he said he didn’t mind, despite the toll it took on him mentally and physically.

“At the games, I’d think, dang, I’ve been in the whole game,” Harris said. “It was just my adrenaline rush, like I was playing so hard trying to win every game. But it was like I could never get out of the game. Every time I tried, I’d be right back in. I got tired, but I just wanted to stay on the field.”

Whatley said Harris “tapped out” in only one game, a Week 2 win at Vilonia when it was still hot. Even then, Whatley said Harris was in for all but four or five plays. Whatley calls Harris’ mental toughness “phenomenal,” adding that he did it all with a nagging groin injury that plagued him throughout the season.

“Those kind of injuries won’t go away,” Whatley said. “Demetrius played hurt and he played tired and never missed a beat. Other players can’t help but look out there and respect that. That’s what makes him tick.”

Harris’ maturity also earned him the trust of his coach, who made him the defensive captain and allowed him to make the secondary calls and make sure the defense was properly aligned.

Whatley says the sky is the limit for Harris, especially as he develops physically. To match the speed and the size and the power at the next level, Harris will have to improve in all those areas. But Harris, who has also played basketball the past two seasons, has had little time for the weight room.

Harris said he was reluctant initially to play basketball, which he had never played in any organized fashion before, preferring instead to focus on football and work on the weights. But Jacksonville head coach Vic Joyner talked him into it.

“Last year, at the start of the season, I did not like basketball,” Harris admits. “I thought I wasn’t any good. So I started practicing and got better as I went. I actually started liking it.”

Harris is a ferocious rebounder and shot blocker, but can also provide the Red Devils some offensive punch.

Whatley said that Harris’ late development as a player should not cost him a chance at the next level.

“There’s still a lot of time,” he said. “There’s no reason for him to panic at all. There’s so many things you can do with him. He can play so many places on the football field.”

Arkansas State was coming in for a visit last week to talk to Harris.

In the meantime, Whatley will have to adjust to life without the dual-threat Harris, and he rolls his eyes at the prospect.

“He had the unselfishness on his part to do whatever he could to make us a better team,” he said. “And he did it all year long.

You won’t be able to replace one like that.

“The thing about Demetrius is, he had a great career here, but there’s a lot of great football ahead of him.”